OPINION
MEDIA & MODI GOVERNMENT
When watchdogs of democracy prefer to be lapdogs of the government
- VIPIN PUBBY
When watchdogs of democracy prefer to be lapdogs of the government



TWO RECENT MOVES by the central government have put the focus back on its attempt to extend surveillance on the general public and media. This is in addition to a series of steps aimed at controlling and keeping media on the leash.

It is common knowledge by now that the government or the ruling party has been able to extend control over large sections of media. This has been achieved through either issuing threats and using its agencies to browbeat some media houses or by encouraging filing of defamation cases, including criminal defamation cases, to silence the media.

Many media houses have taken the cue by volunteering to abstain from their role as watchdogs of democracy to prefer to be lapdogs of the government. The worst affected is the television media. The focus of  debates, with the anchors themselves becoming a party to one sided debates, leaves no room to doubt the agenda of these channels. Many of them refrain from showing or debating any issue which is perceived to be anti government. No wonder most people have stopped watching television news.

While the government may have achieved its objective of largely controlling the electronic media, it appears to be now shifting its focus on the social media. In the latest proposal it has come out with draft social media rules which give sweeping powers to the government authorities. The rules, which won’t be presented or discussed in parliament as these can be notified by the ministry concerned, would make it compulsory for social messaging apps like whatsapp, Facebook, google and twitter to allow for tracing and reporting the origin of any message. Some of these companies currently protect the privacy of individual users and do not keep any record of the conversations or messages.
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It is common knowledge by now that the government or the ruling party has been able to extend control over large sections of media.
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The proposal is to amend the rules under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act and make it compulsory for online platforms to "proactively deploy technology” to trace origins of content seen as ‘unlawful'. The blanket powers sought to be given to government agencies could easily be misused as has been done so many times in the past.

All this is being done without even defining what is ‘fake news’ and ‘unlawful news’. It is well known that governments don’t like criticism and the present government is known to be much more sensitive about it. A recent example is arrest of a Manipuri journalist under National Security Act (NSA) just because he had criticised its functioning.
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The latest proposal would also go against the Supreme Court ruling in 2015 in which it had struck down Section 66-A of the IT Act which allowed the arrest of those allegedly posting offensive content online.
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The latest proposal would also go against the Supreme Court ruling in 2015 in which it had struck down Section 66-A of the IT Act which allowed the arrest of those allegedly posting offensive content online. 

While the need to need for listening into the conversations of those suspected of indulging in anti national activities or trying to spread hatred and communalism is understandable, compromising security and privacy of all the citizens is not justified. It would mean that the government agencies can treat everyone guilty until they are proven innocent. 

The latest move has come on the heels of another draconian order under which ten government agencies "can intercept, monitor and decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer”.

Though the orders say that every such move would require permission from the Home Secretary and that a review panel would be set up to take up such cases, there is a provision that in emergent cases any of these agencies can seek information and need to only inform the Home Secretary upto three days later. Also if the approval is not given in the next seven days, the interception has to stop. This would give 10 clear days for such agencies a blanket license to spy on individuals or organisations.
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The latest move has come on the heels of another draconian order under which ten government agencies "can intercept, monitor and decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer”.
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The government has taken the plea that these orders existed even during the previous government’s tenure but the fact is that the supreme court's recent landmark judgment on Right to Privacy making it a fundamental right did not exist then. Also the general climate of suspicion and the fear expressed by political parties that these rules would be misused to spy of them requires that adequate checks and balances must be included In rules. Instead of orders from bureaucrats, who generally don’t stand up to wrong doings by governments, there should be a provision to involve judiciary before any such surveillance is ordered.
 
 

(The author, a freelance journalist, is a former Resident Editor of Indian Express, Chandigarh, and reported on the political developments in Jammu and Kashmir, North-Eastern India, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab in his long, illustrious career.)


 

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